Haitians Struggle to Make New Lives in New York

NEW YORK, NY February 26, 2010 —Since the earthquake in Haiti, a slow trickle of Haitians have been looking for a way to restart their lives in and around New York. Some are citizens or green card holders who came on U.S. military evacuation flights. Some have come with U.S. citizen children. And more recently, they're coming with tourist visas they got before the quake. Many arrive with few belongings and little money.

One night last week, a Haitian woman named Micheline went to church looking for help. In French and Creole, she told members of the First Haitian Baptist Church of Canarsie how her husband was killed in the earthquake.

"Il etait a sa clinique ..."

He was a doctor and he was at his clinic, she said, when two floors of the building fell down on top of him. She rolls up her pant leg and lifts a bandage to reveal a still-open wound, from when the roof of her house came down.

"C'est tres douleureux..."

She says it's very painful, and -- though she has seen a doctor -- because she's diabetic, it's taking time to heal. Micheline says she's afraid to give her full name because her visa to stay in the U.S. expires soon. She says she came here on a military evacuation flight only 11 days after the quake -- traveling with her son and the grand-daughter she takes care of, who's an American citizen. Micheline is one of hundreds of Haitians who've come here as escorts or tourists, American citizens or permanent residents. And many are turning to places like the Haitian Baptist Church in Canarsie to get help.
United Way of New York and Brooklyn Community Foundation have created a fund to help New York's not-for-profits address the needs of the local Haitian community. The first round of grant applications are due March 8. For more information about applications or about how to donate to the fund, visit www.hopeandhealingfund.org.

The New York Haitian Earthquake Family Resource Center will be accepting donations of clothes and food starting tomorrow, after 4 p.m., at 625 Atlantic Avenue, 3rd Floor Mall. Contact Rita Joseph at 646-258-6985.

Mercedes Narcisse says about a dozen came to this church meeting, mostly people who traveled through the Dominican Republic with tourist visas. "That came after the earthquake to the U.S., we had quite a few. A lot of people that flew after the earthquake."

The purpose of the meeting was to offer information about Temporary Protected Status -- a way for Haitians who were here illegally before the earthquake to get legal work permits. But people who arrived in New York after the quake are not eligible. As the evening drew to a close, Narcisse and the Pastor's wife, Jacintha Victor, said they weren't sure what to tell the newcomers.

"What happens to people who came right after 12th? That was one of biggest questions," they say.

New York State's Immigrant Community Liaison for Haitians says she's also seeing an increasing number of Haitians here on tourist visas -- and with commercial flights now running between Port-au-Prince and New York, she expects to see more.

"They're here, they don't know for how long, and most of them came with the shirt from their back," says Jocelyne Mayas. "So they need to eat, they need to have clothes. And especially, this is winter. It's cold. They have to have clothes that are appropriate."

And in some cases, Mayas says, their hosts in and around New York aren't in a position to give them all the help they need.

"Compared when they used to come visit two weeks or one week, it's not the same," she says. "This guy told us he's living in a home where he has to sleep where the dog is. There is no space for them."

Mayas spends her days at the Brooklyn Armory, where government and not-for-profit groups have created what they call a one-stop shop for Haitian families impacted by the earthquake. And there is some help available for new arrivals: At this site, there's free counseling and free legal assistance. Because of the earthquake, the U.S. is expediting visas for people whose immediate family members can sponsor them. And immigration is allowing Haitians with tourist visas to stay six months, and then renew. But even for newly arrived citizens, there are obstacles to setting up a new life.

"With everything that happened, we have no documents," says Deborah Pierre.

Pierre is 22 years old and was in her fourth year of medical school in Haiti when the earthquake struck. She and her 17-year-old sister both grew up in Haiti, but they're American citizens. So they left their parents and damaged home, went to the airport with almost nothing, and got on an evacuation flight that day. Pierre is already planning to return to Haiti -- where her parents are living outside their home -- because she can't find a way to transfer to a medical school here.

"I would have to start all over again," she says. "They didn't want to give me credit for all the four years of studies that I have."

In Haiti, she'll at least be able to do a medical internship and help. Before leaving, her focus has been to get her sister into a good high school. She was a junior at one of the top private schools in Port-au-Prince, but it collapsed. A month later they've finally gotten her into a public school in New York, but Pierre worries it's inadequate.

"I talked to her guidance counselor and she admitted that her level is too high for the school," she says. "She's going to be going to school but she's not really learning pretty much anything."

The Pierre sisters are staying with their uncle, and friends and family gave them clothes and warm coats. For those with less help, Jocelyne Mayas has organized a new center on Atlantic Avenue to give out clothes and food, and the Red Cross is helping as well. As far as temporary housing, so far there is nothing specifically for Haitians. Mayas says New York is not yet ready to meet the needs of everyone who comes.

"The community is not equipped to do it," Mayas says. "The needs are crucial. They must be addressed, regardless."

Back in Canarsie at the Haitian Baptist Church, Micheline's leg is hurting. Mercedes Narcisse says she'll give her and the friend she's staying with a ride home.

"J'ai des problemes," Micheline says. "I have problems!"

She says she doesn't have a house to live in. This week she and her kids are with one friend, last week they were with another. She doesn't have a way to eat, she doesn't work.

Micheline has a tourism visa, and according to immigration officials, she should be able to extend her stay for at least a year. But she won't legally be able to work or qualify for most government subsidies. And without either, she's not sure how she and the children will survive.

United Way of New York and Brooklyn Community Foundation have created a fund to help New York's not-for-profits address the needs of the local Haitian community. The first round of grant applications are due March 8. For more information about applications or about how to donate to the fund, visit www.hopeandhealingfund.org.